While the Tunisian authorities did all they could to prevent civil society events outside the Kram exhibition centre, on Wednesday 16 November civil society activists succeeded in getting the upper hand against state repression. A press conference to announce the cancellation of the Citizens Summit transformed into a major human rights event.
When civil society activists and journalists moved from the official WSIS Kram centre to the offices of the Tunisian Human Rights League on Wednesday afternoon – the day of the opening of the WSIS summit – they didn't know what to expect. All earlier meetings and press conferences outside the official summit area had been forcefully prevented by Tunisian police and secret service. What they found, however, was a room packed with international journalists, civil society and government delegates, and the who-is-who of international human rights advocacy.
On 14 November, some 30 law enforcement agents in plain clothes shouted, pushed, and tried to physically intimidate the Tunisian representatives of Tunisian independent NGOs present at a coordinating meeting for the Civil Society Summit in front of the Goethe Institute, the German cultural embassy. When members of international NGOs, such as the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Human Rights Watch, the Danish Human Rights Institute and other civil society representatives tried to intervene, the police officers moved away, and pushed the international delegates away. In response a number of civil society organisations cancelled their scheduled events on Wednesday 16 November and used the space to issue a letter of protest in solidarity with their Tunisian colleagues.
A lot of high-profile participants took the floor at the press conference on 16 November and addressed the more than 150 journalists and other participants. Amongst them Mokhtar Trifi, President of the LTDH, Shirin Ebadi, Sidiki Kaba, president of the International League of Human Rights, Manuel Tornare, Mayor of Geneva, Ambeyi Ligabo, UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Catherine Trautmann from the EU Parliament and Steve Buckley, President of the World Association of Community Broadcasters.
They all denounced the repression against civil society activities in Tunisia and showed strong support to the local human rights groups. "We are here to express our total solidarity with the LTDH and all strikers, all prisoners, because they have said no to censorship", Sidiki Kaba said. Mr Ligabo summarised the many statements by proclaiming: "Human rights are not a gift. They are the rights of each and every person." He demanded Tunisia should release all prisoners of opinion.
As the press conference continued, it transformed into a major discussion with many participants joining in – a mini Citizens Summit, with a powerful, celebratory atmosphere. This was exactly what the Tunisian authorities had tried to prevent. In the official press statement Rikke Frank Jørgensen from the Danish Human Rights Institute said: "All the participants in this press conference have made the summit a reality." Steve Buckley added: "The Citizens Summit exists in all free media, all free associations, all free gatherings. We are all the Citizens Summit!" The Association of Progressive Communication APC summarised the event like this: "While heads of states’ speeches present at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) were pouring in on all TV channels, revolution was just around the corner in another district of Tunis."
Flagrant violation of human rights this morning alongside UN summit
The citizens summit is dead – long live the citizens summit! )
Flagrant violation of human rights (14.11.2005) )
(Article copied from APC News and the Heinrich Böll Foundation WSIS weblog, thanks to Rikke Frank Jørgensen)